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Walking on Eggshells Around A Person With Bipolar Disorder

Recently I was contacted by someone (let’s call her Ms. X) who wanted to end a friendship with a bipolar person and asked me how to do it with the least harm possible. I talked with Ms. X and it appears that her bipolar friend had been doing some very hurtful things. I asked Ms. X if she had talked to her friend about these things. Ms. X said that no, she hadn’t.

So why is terminating a friendship preferable to talking about the problem?

Bipolars Behaving Badly

I have bipolar disorder and I know that my mood leaks into everyday life, no matter how much I don’t want it. I’m very conscientious when it comes to keeping my bipolar hidden from others, but let’s face it, sometimes I fail. These failures don’t tend to be very dramatic, but it doesn’t mean that other people never get hurt. And for some bipolars, their mood swings can be very hurtful indeed.

eggs_in_cartonIt’s not much fun to be around someone with:

And so on. Each person with bipolar has their own special list as to what bipolar symptoms slip into their lives.

Can’t We Just Talk About This?

It’s true that when a person is in the midst of a depressive or manic episode discussing their behavior may not be all that helpful. It’s difficult for someone in the middle of a brain storm to pay attention to anything other than the lightening in their head. Nevertheless, at some point, someone needs to say something.

While actions committed in an episode can be more indicative of the disease than of the person, it can still hurt nonetheless.

People though, seem extremely reluctant to just say so. For some reason they don’t want to say they were hurt by the actions of the person with bipolar disorder.

But I’ll Break Them!

That’s not really true. You can’t cause bipolar any more than you can cure it. Now I’m not suggesting that a raging fight with your significant other will have no effect, but I am saying that discussing how you feel, asserting yourself and defining boundaries are reasonable things to do and when done calmly and lovingly, are good for both of you.

puzzleWon’t They Just Figure Out Themselves How I Feel?

Now that’s just silly. No one can read your mind. And a bipolar most especially can’t do it when they’re in the grips of their illness. No, you’re going to have to be a big boy or girl and actually talk to them.

So, How Do I Discuss A Problem With a Person With Bipolar Disorder?

Pretty much like you would discuss it with anyone else you care about, I’d expect. Try to get your thoughts together, and then find a quiet time when you’re both OK to sit down and rationally discuss the problem. A good sentence is:

“I felt hurt when you ____. That was not OK with me.”

You may wish to follow it up with something like:

“I understand that is part of your illness, but I still need to express my feelings around it.”

And then finally,

“How can we can work together to prevent this from happening again?”

That’s how I would deal with anyone. A mental illness doesn’t make the person a block of C-4 explosive.

(This is not to suggest that some people don’t have anger issues and won’t react well to this sort of conversation. If you feel that is the case then I recommend having the conversation in a therapist’s office. Again, that’s not specific to bipolar disorder, that’s just a fact for some people.)

Why Should I Bother?

Well, that’s a question left to the reader, but what I will say is that if you care about this person, then they deserve to know what’s going on. They deserve to know how you feel. They deserve to know what hurt you. They deserve the chance to make it better. They deserve the opportunity to prevent this in the future.

It betters both of you to deal with an issue openly and honestly. You can let go of your hurt and anger, the person with bipolar disorder has the chance to improve themselves, and your relationship becomes stronger. Everybody wins.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

Author: Natasha Tracy

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36 thoughts on “Walking on Eggshells Around A Person With Bipolar Disorder”

  1. Hi Kate,

    That is a good point regarding self-harm although suicidal thoughts are part of the diagnostic criteria for bipolar (from the DSM-IV):

    “recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide”

    – Natasha

  2. Communication is definetly the key and being honest and real. I used to struggle with humoring people when “storytime” began and reality left the building for awhile. Without being argumentative, I never really knew how to tell a loved one “hey you’re on a trip to the moon and you got the facts a bit off” without either upsetting them or hurting their feelings. BS sessions I used to have with my buddys used to make the fish we caught 3 times bigger and the girl we went out with Sat night alot prettier so I kinda understand the feeling to bend the truth sometimes to either feel good or feel a little more important then life has you at the moment.

    The real change came for me was when I found the courage to ask. I came just so close to walking away. You really do feel like you’re hurting someone by presenting the truth to them, especially when the truth is hey friend you’re Mentally Ill today and not doing well. So I finally asked. Babe, when you’re on your trips off planet earth, what should I do? She said tell me, it’s bring me back. She said her mind is like a wild mustand that gets loose sometimes from the barn and doesn’t even know its running loose sometimes until someone tells her.

    I’m fortunate right now, the ride is calm, but bumps and turns I’m sure will come. Best advice I can give is not to give up, be truthful in handling the illnesses, take care of yourself FIRST and talk your brains out. Hopefully by being open and honest we can get some cures.

  3. thank you so much for this. I’ve been tip toeing for a couple years and right now, my b/f is coming out of an depressive wave. The sad part is that when he is deep in it, the smallest missteps (or big ones that I make, and, I am certainly not perfect, I have been known to say the wrong thing) will send him deeper and into a place where he starts taking about how we maybe shouldn’t be together and how he has never lived up to anyone’s needs etc. During light moments, he still has his insecurities but they are certainly not as black or white as they are in the darker times.
    I know more lies ahead…good and challenging. It comforts me to remind myself that sometimes what is said in his darkest hours is more his disease than him.

  4. Hi Mark,

    No doubt about it, the truth can definitely be a smack in the face.

    Congratulations. I give you big kuddos for addressing the issue and being honest, and to your partner for wanting your honesty. You guys are great role models 🙂

    And I do agree, you have to take care of yourself first. We all do.

    – Natasha

  5. Hi Sarah,

    That’s really tough. I know what it is to have any little thing make you feel worse. I’ve been there.

    But remember, that’s not your fault. That’s the disease. And we all say the “wrong” things. We’re human.

    You didn’t mention if your boyfriend is in therapy, but it sounds like that might be helpful. If you both want the relationship to work, therapy can give you tools so you can communicate with each other more affectively. And when he is really down, he needs to understand what is him and what is the disease too.

    As Mark said, talk your brains out. It will help both of you.

    – Natasha

  6. While some issues are obviously exacerbated by mood episodes, and growing up with bipolar can make it difficult for an individual to develop healthy coping patterns and relationships – not every failing is the result of bipolar.

    I think figuring out how to respond to a behavior has a lot to do with what is driving it. If the behavior is genuinely out of the person’s control (eg, hallucinations, lack of concentration or energy fluctuations), there’s not much anyone can do, unless they’re an appropriate professional.

    But we can try to influence other behaviors that have an element of choice – including how an individual chooses to cope with their moods. If someone is turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like self harm, engaging in substance abuse, or refusing to enter appropriate treatment – friends and family members can and should hold the individual accountable for their decisions. It goes without saying they should also support making better decisions, of course!

    Thinking of my own relationship with a BP sibling, I’ve struggled to respond appropriately to the mix of issues she presents – some that are directly about her bipolar (eg, risk taking with lack of insight, catatonic depression), those that are personality issues (eg, self harm in response to stress, lack of empathy in relationships), and those that cross over (eg, trouble sticking with treatment, leading to a failure to develop better coping mechanisms or recognise early warning signs).

    But I’m able to respond much more skillfully now that I’ve separated these out, and I’ve benefited enormously from my own therapy (even though I don’t have BP)!

  7. Hi Rosie,

    To quote you, “not every failing is the result of bipolar”. And I completely agree.

    Just as a note, sussing out bipolar from personality behaviors is tough. Self-harm may or may no be personality related, and a lack of empathy may be a dampened emotion due to medication.

    It must be hard to watch that, as a sibling. Congrats on sticking in there and getting your own therapy. I’m a big believer in everyone getting therapy – those of us with a mental illness just have a more obvious need.

    – Natasha

  8. Knowledge I agree is just as powerful as the honesty and the communication. My youngest boy was diagnosed ADHD. So, the doc explains in his lingo Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Ok doc, what do you suggest. Therapy, structure, love, etc. Reality is, I can doze off watching Barney with my boy for 30 minutes, wake up, and the Fridge door is off its hinges, the heating vents are filled with matchbox cars and the septic system is stuffed with Lincoln Logs and the Plumber is left scratching his head.

    You mix a pinch of ADHD or OCD or ODD or MR in with a BP and each episode is a different sandwich. While the last 2 months have been relatively calm and stable for my dear friend and me, the volcano is smoking. ADHD is winning more battles than I care to mention and the care dont care needle can go from ok were fine to get out of my way and leave me alone. Sick people desperately want a break from being sick. And pretending you’re not sick maybe a nice 3 day vacation but reality does set in whether we want it to or not and there always seems to be a mess to clean up. God bless people who can take a hundred punches and keep fighting.

  9. I am diagnosed as bi-polar and I lean towards being chronically depressed for the majority of my time jumping straight into short-lived, manic episodes. After years of trial and error, I am currently on multiple prescriptions that work well for me, right now. However, I recently lost medical coverage and was forced to go without medication for a little over 1 month.

    During that time my ex (and father of my 3yr and 5yr old boys) moved back into my house while transitioning from one job to another. He had left a little over a year prior to that (because of not being able to cope with my ups and downs) and moved back to our hometown area (5 hours drive from where we currently live.) He moved back, for the most part, because our custody agreement dictated our son would join kindergarten in the city I lived in and he would need to either move back or accept less parenting time.

    Anyhow, he moved back just as I was weining from my meds, and my ability to control my resentment and bursts of anger (over insensitive comments from him) was at its lowest and then got worse. He was just supposed to be staying here for a bit while he ramped up at his new job and found a place of his own. But we fell into temptation and ended up trying to make things work. We tried to get back together. Dumb move that we both knew was WAY too premature.

    I feel that I cannot find myself again with him here. He fails to see my bi-polar as an actual illness and will not be supportive or empathetic, yet is insulted and angry if I imply he might be just that. Hi refuses to just let me “act however I want” and not defend himself. I tried all I can to show him the cause and effect of his actions and how he can help to not trigger an episode. But he consistently states that he shouldn’t have to and that I am the problem with my irrational feelings. I understand this absolute fact. I am bi-polar. I know this. Does he?

    I am an extremely intuitive person and I understand completely when I am reacting to him in with irrational behavior. He does and says things that are openly disrespectful to me (in my opinion) and then refuses to acknowledge my feelings as justified when I calmly bring them up. He, instead, jumps straight to defending himself and whatever act that may have been the subject of conversation. He does this without intending to hurt me, but it does deeply, mainly because it shows how little creed he actually gives my thoughts. So in turn I react even worse and things escalate very quickly.

    He says he loves me and doesn’t want me to feel hurt. He however does not know how to diffuse the situations when they occur and makes it much much worse EVERY SINGLE TIME. Your lists of things NOT to say to someone during these episodes are direct quotes of his.

    He’s terribly hurtful and I don’t believe I can keep myself together around him. I’ve given him books to read on loving someone with bi-polar and he says he’s read them but thinks it’s a team effort and he won’t start with any of the techniques they describe until I’m willing to work with him. (I go to counseling twice a month and meet with a Pschiatrist once per month additionally.)

    I’ll give him specific instructions on things not to do (such as mention an ex-girlfriend/fling while we were apart), and he chooses to do them over and over, all the while, explaining to me that my feelings against [whatever the case may be] are irrational and I shouldn’t feel that way because my perception of the situation is off. You can understand this infuriates me and the fights get worse and worse. He resorts to blame and guilt throwing. “It’s all about you!” “When is it anyone else’s turn to get some attention?” “WHEN IS IT MY TURN?!”

    I’ve tried time and time again to explain to him that I’m in no position to help him out of his funk and he needs to just take care of himself and try not to make my life worse. To no avail.

    The main problem here is this: I truly do not believe he has what it takes to be in a relationship with me. And whereas, I do not blame him for this (I wouldn’t ever choose to love a person with bi-polar), I am VERY resentful that he continues to protest that he does have what it takes. He says he loves me and CAN handle the ups and downs, but then proves otherwise. It’s not human for someone who believes the pain I’m in to continue to do what he does. And it’s not right to stay with someone if you think they are a manipulative faker, that means he does this all unintentionally, without understanding the damage being caused. I believe I have exhausted every means I can think of to tell him how it is with me and how seriously he should think about the commitment he needs to make to us. Therefore, I need him to evaluate the situation for himself and make an honest decision on both our behalves.

    Perception is my reality for the moments I’m in BPDs throws. I’m still ramping up again on my meds and I haven’t anything left to give him.

    He – however – continues to say that he can handle it if I would just stop [insert irrational behavior here]. I try to tell him that will not happen and he is just making it worse, but he gets very defensive and starts throwing blame at me right away. He needs to constantly point out that I’m the one with the problem and he should be given credit for just sticking around. This is an endless, reoccurring argument that ends tragically each time.

    Just being there is not enough when you roll your eyes and walk away when there is a problem. If you ignore my crying until I’ve exhausted myself and passed out, that does not constitute “sticking around” anyway.

    How HOW can I make him see that it is OK for him to not be the kind of person capable of putting up with (let alone helping) someone like me? Because we are both suffering immensely. He wears me down and convinces me that we are meant to be together and it is very hard to resist that when there are small children involved. But then I CRASH to the floor when he blatently disregards my feelings and then tops it off by blaming me and telling me he will not put up with me and no one else ever will either.

    I need for HIM to understand that he is not right for the job and that he is making it worse. I can’t move out (it’s my house) and he hasn’t enough money to put down for a new place yet. I NEED him to understand that making it worse is a DANGEROUS game that he is capable of controlling. When I try to say this to him, he immediately responds defensively and goes into his “you are so self-absorbed” “what about my issues?” mode. My only answer to him is to explain that I did not ask for him to move back in, I did not want to try getting back together until he found a place and we started counseling.

    I tell him I have nothing to offer him and he has no right to waltz into my house and my life again, expecting me to get over everything I’ve got going on so that I could concentrate on him. I told him from the moment he moved in that I was in no position to deal with his “poor me”s and he agreed to not go there.

    For him to continue to do this when he sees me on the floor sobbing after a fight and hyperventilating just trying to regain composure, shows me he isn’t right for the job. I want him to gracefully bow out and walk away, but he is obsessed with placing blame and being the good guy. He WILL NOT ACCEPT the notion that he could be expected to be the mature one when I am in that state. He says he shouldn’t need to and won’t let me treat him that way. I don’t want him to let me hurt him (I don’t say hurtful things anyway I mainly just get pissed when he texts the girl I’ve discussed right in front of me and tells her she looks hot in her Halloween costume. I think that is SOOO disrespectful. But, “they’re just friends and [I] need to accept that”) but he needs to understand the way he reacts when I get irrational kills me. And the thought of that just pisses him off and he throws punches (psychologically) at me.

    How can I get him to realize that my life is in danger as long as he continues to casually entertain the thought of us being together. That HE needs to stop trying to convince me that he can handle me when it’s obvious he will not put the effort in. He truly believes he shouldn’t have to and that my pain is something I choose to indulge in [just to piss him off]. Or, how do I find the courage to handle the guilt and get out of this on my own.

    He cannot handle me at my worst and doesn’t deserve me at my best.

    Anonymous

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